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The Blue Hour: A Life of Jean Rhys Hardcover – May 26, 2009

4.5 out of 5 stars 6 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The genius of novelist Jean Rhys (1890–1979) is painfully depicted in this compelling short biography, exploring what it was like to live such a tortured life. Rhys was overlooked for decades until Wide Sargasso Sea, her postmodern shift of emphasis on Jane Eyre, became an instant sensation in 1966. Three times married to ne'er-do-wells and enduring an unhappy dollop of motherhood, Rhys was better known as the lover of Ford Maddox Ford. According to British author Pizzichini (Dead Man's Wages), both Ford's predatory paternalism and his novelist's flattery attracted and repelled her, as did the criminal element of society. Pizzichini searches Rhys's background for clues to her self-destructive judgments. Born in Dominica as Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams, she was later a free-spirited young outsider in starchy, empirical England and elsewhere in Europe. Stuck with men who couldn't make ends meet, Rhys had a brief career in prostitution and also worked as a chorus girl. Evocative and empathetic, Pizzichini still offers no fully satisfactory explanation for the explosiveness of Rhys's interior life: She found life difficult because she found it hard to be herself. 20 photos. (Apr. 29)
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From Booklist

*Starred Review* The pain expressed in Rhys’ sexually frank, devastating fiction is so authentic, it suggests firsthand experience of the bleakest aspects of womanhood in a misogynist society. Ahead of her time and forever dispossessed, deeply unconventional and intensely creative, Rhys, born Ella Gwendoline Rees Williams in sunny Dominica in 1890 and sent to boarding school in chilly England, did, indeed, draw on her own life in such indelible works as Good Morning, Midnight (1939) and Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). Her harrowing story has been told in full by Carole Angier in a 1990 biography. What Pizzichini—who wrote about her grandfather,  a notorious London gangster, in Dead Man’s Wages (2002)—achieves in this page-turner is a piercingly empathic psychological portrait. Beginning in the West Indies, where Rhys “spent much of her childhood screaming,” up to her death in 1979, Pizzichini decodes the volatile chemistry of Rhys’ watchfulness and tenacity, hatred of hypocrisy and attraction to criminality, and addictions to conflict and alcohol. As Pizzichini perceptively tracks Rhys the chorus girl, kept woman, wife of three feckless crooks, lover of Ford Maddox Ford, and survivor of breakdowns and incarceration, a world-altering writer of ruthless honesty emerges from the flames. --Donna Seaman

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (May 26, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393058034
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393058031
  • Product Dimensions: 0.6 x 0.1 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #279,757 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By Stephanie De Pue VINE VOICE on May 13, 2009
Format: Hardcover
"The Blue Hour," by Lillian Pizzichini, is a biography of the late, now much admired by feminists, West Indian-born author Jean Rhys. Rhys, who later in her life had fallen into obscurity after her initial novelistic career petered out, published the astonishing novel Wide Sargasso Sea, in 1966. It is a stunningly-imagined prequel of sorts to famous British Victorian novelist Charlotte Bronte's celebrated, also much honored, Jane Eyre; and is now considered one of the great feminist novels of the 20th century. "Sargasso" gives us the backstory of Bertha Mason Rochester, the tragically misunderstood "madwoman in the attic:"Mr. Rochester's attic, that is. Bronte had characterized the first Mrs. Rochester as having originated in the West Indies; Rhys, perhaps the only author who could ever have done so, picked this up and fleshed out a woman, living in the cold gray environment that England can be, driven to insanity by cruelties beyond her control. "Sargasso," upon publication, won its author many awards and honors, but she always said it all came too late for her.

In this rather brief book, Pizzichini gives us a sympathetic, tactful biography of Rhys, who was born in Domenica, British West Indies, on August 24, 1890, as Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams, daughter of a Welsh doctor and a white Creole mother of Scottish descent. Of course, as history makes clear to us, and Pizzichini emphasizes, the term "white Creole," for a family that had been in the West Indies for generations, was somewhat misleading.
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Format: Hardcover
Hi All, I read this book in two nights because even though it's not a thriller it is just wonderful. L.P., the author has a way with Jean Rhys and with writing directly but so well.

I usually know what I want to say about a book I was so immersed in and so recently (I finished it last night). But it's hard to say right now why I found this biography such a page turner.

I'll try to say what I loved: The descriptions of Jean at various stages of life, starting in the magical Dominica and then to London, Paris, Vienna, Holland and back to London were told without a spare word. You are there with Jean Rhys. Which leads me to the second wonderful thing about the writer, she does not intrude. She is not pretending to be Jean Rhys but she is giving us Ms. Rhys in all her ever-changing complexity so that when we re-read or read Rhys novels we know where she was and what her mind was focused on that fed her writing.

But for a third reason, I find it as yet impossible to describe. Pizzichini just writes so well that there is a mysterious something that makes this book really hard to put down. One the the best biographies I've ever read. Thanks L.P.

PS I wrote this review many moons ago. It wasn't put under this book for reasons I don't understand but I wanted to add my voice to the other two.
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Format: Hardcover
It's nothing new to say that fiction, by its very nature can never be strictly autobiographical: even writers who regularly mine their lives for stories transmute and change things in the process. Few writers, however, have mined more deeply from their own experiences than Jean Rhys, and since the trajectory of her writing career showed her writing told more and more subjectively from the points of view of her heroines, readers of her fiction have a pretty good sense of what it felt like to be a depressed and emotionally transplanted Dominican living in London and Paris. Thus it doesn't seem like there was much need for Lilian Pizzichini to write Rhys's life in a fair approximation of Rhys's style largely from Rhys's perspective, since we more or less have that information as readers already; this short biography tells us what we already mostly know as Rhys readers. Even so, it's a fairly straightforwardly told narrative of a writer who lived one of the most disastrous lives in twentieth-century letters, so it's filled with incident and interest (particularly in Rhys's many tangles with the law and in her unhappy extended relationship with Ford Madox Ford). But because this biography leaves so many questions dangling that cannot be answered just by this approach (What did it feel like for Maryvonne, Rhys's only child to survive to adulthood, to have such an irresponsible and inept parent who pawned her off regularly to friends and family to rear? How did this often completely disorganized person manage to write such tightly disciplined great novels?), readers might be much better off seeking the standard (and more scholarly) Angier biography.
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